The Orlando Magic finished the season with a first-round exit and are focused on getting better, but may need to trade their best offensive player to do so.
The Orlando Magic have decisions to make.
Not only does this organization have to find a way to get players to stay healthy in order to raise their level of success, but they also have to make important roster decisions.
After two straight years making the playoffs and falling in five games, it feels the Magic have made incredible progress but have also stalled out. The team is trying to figure out how it gets better.
Everything is on the table it seems. And the Magic have to consider major changes as they try to make the roster competitive beyond the first round.
The biggest decision they have to make is just what they plan on doing with Nikola Vucevic, arguably the team’s best player. Vucevic just finished the first year of a four-year $100-million contract.
The Magic have paid a lot of money for Vucevic. He has largely produced. But the results are still coming up short. And everything has to be under consideration including dealing the team’s best player.
For Orlando to move Nikola Vucevic, it will take a lot. And the Magic should expect a lot.
They have paid Vucevic like a star, they play him like a star and their biggest need is to find a star to complete their roster.
Vucevic has some trade value now. But the Magic organization will have to be extremely careful how they deal him when the time comes. He is vital to what the team does in the short-term and may still have a role to play in the long-term.
But it is something they need to explore. To get better requires thinking through every possibility. And that includes exploring Vucevic’s trade market.
There is always serious consideration that has to be given when a team trades its best player. They need a plan to be set for what they will seek and what conditions need to exist to make the move.
Vucevic has been the offensive anchor for the Magic for the past eight years and has finally led the team to back-to-back playoff appearances. He has reached the pinnacle for a player that does not have a legitimate, second option perennial all-star caliber player alongside him.
Orlando will have to map how it will improve its team.
When looking for a trade for the skilled center, the organization has to find a player who fits the team’s current core of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohammed Bamba’s. Since these three players are more athletic, defensive-minded athletes, the organization may want to find a player who can run the floor and play with speed in addition to being a strong defender, a key part of the identity under Steve Clifford.
The Magic need a guy who can score in his sleep and is on a favorable contract where the Magic can swap him out for Vucevic.
The organization needs to look for a player who can cover the scoring Vucevic brings to the table as well as bring a particular level of athleticism and spunk. This team needs to be more entertaining and bringing in a guy who can take over games is a critical need.
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In other words, the Magic need to replace their star with a star. And if they are not confident that star will develop internally, they need to try to find someone who is either that star or can grow into that star by joining the Magic.
That is where Vucevic has been positioned as a player on the roster as well as a trade asset.
This season, Vucevic earned $28 million and was paid like a top-five center in the NBA after he made the All-Star team and willed his team to the Eastern Conference Playoffs. His salary will decline, reportedly to $26 million and by about $2 million every year after that.
That is still a lot of money to pay a player who cannot will their team to the second round of the playoffs. It is hard to say whether Vucevic is the kind of player who can take over games and push the team higher.
Certainly not without help. And that is the biggest question the Magic face.
Just to put it in perspective, Nikola Vucevic makes a little less than $5 million per year than Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic ($29.5 annually), a center who most believe is a better player than Vucevic and maybe now the best center in the league.
Jokic has proven to be able to carry a team to the second round of the Playoffs in a tougher conference and has earned every penny of his contract. He may have been underpaid. The Denver Nuggets are currently down 2-1 against the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that most pundits picked to win the championship and Denver has a rare opportunity to beat arguably the best player of all-time.
There is a big gap of natural ability between the two centers, and Nikola Jokic plays with a better second option in Jamal Murray.
The Magic have finally entrusted Vucevic with more of the offense and he delivered with a breathtaking playoff performance in 2020. He averaged 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in the five-game series, displaying his versatility and how modern his game really was.
But the undermanned Orlando Magic had little chance to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks without all the key players they were missing.
Even then, the team failed to take a step up in the standings. And they were so far behind that it seemed unlikely that even if they were healthy they would be able to take that step up.
That is what has led to an offseason of uncertainty. Orlando has to consider everything as the team plans its future. And that includes trading away its All-Star and best player.
Orlando would also have to replace Vucevic’s leadership too. He leads more by example than by word, but he has been a valuable mentor to Bamba and a stabilizing force in the lineup. His consistency is as valuable as his production.
As the team reshapes the roster they need someone who will be willing to lead the team and be the guy at the end of close games. They need someone who can fully take on the responsibilities of the best player.
Vucevic has filled that role admirably. But something is clearly missing.
The addition of a player of this magnitude could turn the tide for the Magic and steer the organization in the direction of an NBA Finals berth.
And that is the real goal for this franchise in the upcoming season.